Can Nonhuman Primates Attribute Mental Agency to Others

The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, when investigating autism (1999), introduced the term intentionality detector as a marker of innate knowledge of other minds. The term intentionality in this context refers not simply to goal-directed behavior but more specifically to the attribution of mental processes in the other that are recognized as similar to one's own experience. Baron-Cohen notes that nonhuman primates can be Machiavellian in their social interactions, but this does not demonstrate that they have a theory of other minds, that they are "mind readers." Their Machiavellian actions may be prompted by the contextual perceptions of specific behaviors in the other and is not to be taken as evidence of their being able to detect a complex intentionality in the other. Baron-Cohen concludes that it is unclear whether or not nonhuman primates possess this "higherorder" attribute of intentionality.

The psychologist Michael Tomasello, who has investigated both human infants and chimpanzees, is convinced that a theory of other minds is a uniquely human attribute (1999). He states that chimpanzees lack a theory of mind in the sense that they do not recognize others as mental agents engaged in solving problems. Chimpanzees have no difficulty in detecting the other's (lower-order) intentionality and are capable of making complex social appraisals. However, this represents observations of behavior without the inference that one chimpanzee believes that another possesses a mind like its own. For example, it was observed that young chimpanzees made requests of their trainer, regardless of whether the trainer was facing them (Tomasello 1999). This suggests that the chimpanzees could not identify with the trainer's need to see them in order to know what they want. It could be said that chimpanzees are behaviorists and not mentalists, that they don't understand subjectivity.

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